Haddish, a thrilling arrival on the comedy scene in 2017 with her breakout supporting role in “Girls Trip,” is a performer who lives within her choice not to modulate; her character, in that film and others, is a provocateur by nature, one whom a project can cut away from but never otherwise constrain. That’s an easier fit with a flamboyant, and scripted, movie comedy than with a series that places Haddish in conversation with real kids. The children of “Kids Say” are supporting players to Haddish’s brash lead, and they either attempt to meet her energy in a manner that never seems uncoached or tap out, seeming vaguely unmoored by the situation and its chaos.
All of which works against what was supposed to be the idea of the show. We get a flashback to the show’s beginning in the “Kids Say” pilot, with clips of Art Linkletter interviewing youngsters in segments from his series “House Party.” (A late-1990s “Kids Say” reboot led by Bill Cosby goes mercifully unmentioned.) Back then, Linkletter’s low-key interviewing style allowed young people the space to express their view of society; if there’s a virtue to a format that necessarily tends towards the saccharine, it’s that glimpse into genuine childish weirdness.
Haddish, a competitive comedian, can’t help but mug over the kids she’s supposed to be introducing, and redirects the conversation perpetually to her celebrity status, including in an opening monologue about her fame that seemed strangely out-of-place. (Also odd in the show’s earliest going: Haddish doesn’t just do a few minutes of stand-up, she also sings the series theme song.) Her overarching comic idea for the show appears to be that she presupposes children won’t be impressed by her fame and thus she needs to convince them of it. (Why whether or not children have heard of someone who almost never makes children’s entertainment matters at all is a question for another day.) She talks past a trio of young girls in order to communicate that she is friends with Taylor Swift and asks another if he’s seen an animated film in order to announce that she played a voice role in it. This youngster’s segment is mainly comprised of him complimenting her and calling himself a big fan. In the show’s closing segment, Haddish is paired with a young pianist who doesn’t say much of anything, darned or otherwise; he’s there to play so that she can sing over him.
There’s a stressful energy to “Kids Say” in its 2019 iteration — a sense, perhaps, that the show is particularly well-suited to a paranoid, aggressive moment among comedians. It’s also dispiriting to watch a show that was at some point in the distant past about celebrating the peculiar, innocent worldviews of children lean so heavily into a point-of-view that places celebrities at the center of the universe: Aside from Haddish, who allows the children to speak when she’s ready, and aside from the lengthy discussion of Taylor Swift, the show also features a segment in which children send messages of affection to Swift (again), Steph Curry, and Shawn Mendes. This show wants the kids on its air to bolster and bring further attention to famous adult celebrities. In this, it gets the equation of how to bring together young people and stars precisely and disastrously backwards.
“Kids Say the Darndest Things.” ABC. Oct. 6. One screened for review.
Cast: Tiffany Haddish
Executive Producers: Eric Schotz, Tiffany Haddish, Jack Martin.